ζηλοῦτε … ἵνα προφητεύητε. “Desire earnestly … that you may prophesy.”
θέλω … πάντας ὑμᾶς ἵνα προφητεύητε. “I want you all … that you may prophesy.”
ἐὰν πάντας προφητεύωσιν … “If all would prophesy …”
δύνασθε … πάντες προφητελυειν. “Υou can all prophesy.”
ζηλοῦτε τὸ προφτεύειν. “Desire earnestly to prophesy.”Paul, I Corinthians 14:1, 5, 24, 31, 39
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), after Jesus describes those who would follow and accompany him (that is, be his students or disciples) on the path of penitence as “blessed,” he then describes them as those called to prophesy (5:11-16). Similarly, before Jesus ends the sermon with a description of those who would build their house on the rock versus those who build their house on sand, he describes true versus false prophets (7:15-23).
A …… The Frame (4:25–5:2)
B ……….. The Rock of Blessedness (5:3-10)
C ……………. Prophecy (5:11-16)
D ………………… The Way of Penitence (5:17–7:14)
C’ …………… Prophecy (7:15-23)
B’ ………. The Rock of Blessedness (7:24-27)
A’ ….. The Frame (7:28–8:1)
As those stepping in his footprints, we may not be prophets, but it would seem we are all expected to fulfill a prophetic function in the world around us. Within the community, prophecy functions so that all may learn and be encouraged and built up ― and the apostle Paul wanted earnestly for everyone in the community, inclusively and equitably, to prophesy mutually ― but prophecy also functions outside the community, according to 1 Corinthians 14:24-25: to convict (ἐλέγχω) and to call to account (ἀνακρίνω), that the secrets of a person’s heart may become apparent (τἀ κρυπτὰ τῆς καρδίας αὐτοῦ φανερὰ γίνεται). The later seems to be mostly what Jesus had in mind (although Christianity has been historically the primary persecutor of its prophets).
While we think of the prophet as an exceptional and remarkable individual, we can see from the quotations that lead this essay, all taken from what we call the fourteenth chapter of Paul’s “first” letter to the gathering in Corinth, that Paul hoped and expected that ― at least eventually ― every participant in the Christian community would learn to prophesy, and that everyone taking their turn (I imagine, as time permitted) would prophesy for each other’s mutual edification when they gathered together. For us to imagine what Paul might have had in mind, we might have to adjust our understanding of prophesy quite a bit in order to accommodate his vision. He has in mind prophetic communities enmeshed in the grassroots of their larger local communities.
Both John the Baptizer and Jesus who was baptized by him spoke of the “realm of the heavens” coming near. When Jesus was baptized the heavens “opened,” and he saw a divine spirit alighting on him like a dove (maybe he even saw a dove) ― or more accurately, a pigion ― and also a feminine voice speaking to him and naming him, “My beloved son in whom I have found pleasure.” Here, obviously, the realm of the heavens has come near, as if the barrier between the heavens and the mundane has gotten so thin that it was like a curtain had been drawn. Jesus was, at least for a moment, in the realm of the heavens, even as he was also on earth. It is in this context that he says of others who are in the path of penitence (by accompanying him), the “poor in spirit” who are “persecuted for the sake of rightousness,” that theirs too is the realm of the heavens.
However, before anyone gets the idea that this is simply an interior experience separate from our life on the land and in the world, he also says that they are like prophets. What happens in the realm of the heavens is not a private individual experience but is a light that feeds the very land you live on and shines on other people who may or may not be open to what you have to share.
While “the heavens” certainly does not refer to the afterlife as is popularly thought, it also does not refer to another geographical place separate from the place where our bodies are. If, as the rabbis speculated, the Temple is a model of creation, the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, separated from the rest by a veil, is at the heart of creation. It is an ontological level of all that is, the basis of it all. It is not something from which everything emerges for everything that is is still there. A close analogy, in my opinion, is Neil Bohr’s distinction between the implicate and explicate orders. One order is everything enfolded in an eternal sigularity, the other unfolded in time and space. One is the unitive realm, the other the partitive realm of “the ten thousand things.” The Holy of Holies is not elsewhere, it is here, it is the reality of things, but it is veiled to our eyes (our perception) ― though the veil can become “thin” or open altogether.
A prophet was once someone who was anointed by a vision of the Holy One in the realm of the heavens and given a burden to speak out. The Hebrew word for prophets is נְבִיאִים, nevi’im. A נָבִיא, navi’, from נָבָא, nava, is one in whom words “bubble up” and who pours them forth under divine influence, in song, speech, or madness. Prophets are still those who “speaks forth” what has been given to them in their spirit, capturing it with their mind and forming it into the words which they then utter.
Jesus might be suggesting here, however, that our very existence ought to be prophetic, shining through our beautiful acts (τὰ καλὰ ἔργα), though it might be that all he means in 5:16 is that the light of our words ― the light if we choose not to hide it ― enable people to see our acts as beautiful and so give glory to the One who is in heaven. At other times, Jesus says that it is what is in our heart that proceeds out of our mouths (12:34-37; 15:18-19) ― though the field of psychology insightfully complicates this assertion and makes it much more interesting! Even if this is what Jesus means here, however, it would still be nonetheless true that our entire existence is meant to be prophetic, for the meaning of 5:16 is surely that our words and deeds hang together.
Let us consider these two passages in more detail. Both are chiastic.
A …… 5:11-12
B ……….. 5:13
C ……………. 5:14
B’ ………. 5:15
A’ ….. 5:16
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in the heavens, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (11-12)
You are the salt of the land,
but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?
It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. (13)
You are the light of the world.
One cannot hide a city situated on top of a mountain. (14)
Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket,
but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. (15)
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (16)
Usually verses 11-12 are grouped with the beatitudes. Why am I grouping them with verses 13-16? As I said before, the words “because theirs is the realm of the heavens” in verses 3 and 10 form an inclusio. While verses 11-12 are also a beatitude, this beatitude is different in structure than those in verses 3-10. They all spoke of those who were blessed in the third person. Here they are spoken of in the second person. It is also, of course, much more extended. It is, however, the final words that I find convincing: “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The word προφήται, “prophets,” relates to the following verses, where it forms an inclusio with verse 16, and it also relates to 7:15-23 the penultimate passage of the sermon. The word προφήτης, “prophet,” is a compound of two words, the preposition πρό and the verb φημί. Φημί is related to φῶς (light) and φαίνω (to shine or make shine) and means to bring to light. A prophet, which means one who speaks forth, is literally one who brings to light what is hidden. This is why light is the main metaphor in the passage under consideration.
At the heart of this passage is verse 14:
Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου.
οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους κειμένη.
You [all] are the light of the world.
One cannot hide a city situated on top of a mountain.
Jesus calls himself the “light of the world” in John’s Gospel. Here, the disciple (or student) walking in his footsteps and accompanying him on the lifelong path of penitence is told that, because they do so, they also are the light of the world. Light is so that we can see. The Christ or Messiah is someone who is anointed. Jesus (the anointed one) anoints us by the Holy Spirit so that we too become anointed ones. When the eyelids were anointed in the Temple, it implied that vision was given. By seeing, we can help others see by bringing things to light for them.
If the disciples (students) are shining, they cannot be easily hidden from the world. They are like a city (a polis or town) on top of a hill or mountain. The comparison to a city or town implies that they are the light of the world as a community and not just as individuals. This was very much the apostle Paul’s concern: the Christian communities (identified by their polis) were to be a prophetic presence in the midst of their world― a light that would help others see. The way of penitence that Jesus teaches is not one’s private spirituality; it is meant to be public.
This needs to be distinguished from every kind of imperial religion that tries to impose itself on the social order as was done in Christendom and is not being advocated by those who subscribe to what is loosely called “dominion theology,” or “dominionism,’ a group of ideologies often tied to Christian Nationalism, Catholic Integralism, and the “Christian Right.” While they may not use these labels, what they want is to institute a nation that is governed by Christians and based on their particular understandings of biblical law. This is analogous to the position taken by the Zealots and their predecessors which led to the Jewish War of C.E. 70. Jesus directly opposed this movement, foreseeing the catastrophe to which its intolerance would inevitably lead. In fact, it was Jesus’ opposition to zealotry and the intolerance that was bound up with it that was the focus of his own prophetic ministry.
The word “mountain” (or hill) has a typological sense in Matthew’s Gospel. It is used here. In Matthew 4:8, it is on the top of a very high mountain that the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. In 5:1 and 8:1 we see that Jesus taught on a mountain. Ιn 14:23 a mountain is where he went to pray. In 15:29 he healed and fed the multitude on a mountain. In 17:1 and 9 a mountain is where he was transfigured in a vision and the disciples saw his glory. In 17:20 and 21:21 a mountain is in a parable about faith, and in 18:12 in a parable, sheep are being pastured on a mountain. 21:1, 24:3, and 26:30 refer to the Mountain of Olives, where in 24:3 Jesus also taught. In 24:16 mountains are a place to flee for safety. Finally, in 28:16, a mountain is where the resurrected Jesus commissions his disciples and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and, “I will be with you always.” It is often a place where “the realm of the heavens” has drawn near or come close, where the veil of creation’s “Holy of Holies” is thin, where the supernal light shines through (which we might compare to the light of the seven-branch menorah reflecting on the walls of the Holy of Holies’ golden cube).
Another name for the Holy of Holies is the city of the elohim (the angels), the holy habitation of the Divine (Psalm 46:4), situated on top of the holy mountain (87:1-3). If the light the students of penitence bear is the shining forth of the same light that shines through Jesus, perhaps “the city situated on the top of a mountain” is a metaphor for the light in the Holy of Holies. This is the light of prophesy, the light of the Holy One that Jesus wants to be shining through his students whether they are gathered with each other or out in the world.
In 5:13 Jesus says we are the salt of the earth, salt which flavors food, is an important nutrient, has medicinal uses, and preserves food. It can lose its flavor by being mixed with gypsum. Merchants would sometimes “stretch” the salt they sold in the marketplace by mixing it with gypsum, enough of which rendered it useless. If we are to be useful as salt to the earth, we need to not have our “salt” mixed with the look-alike but tasteless gypsum. When it comes to salt, quality is more important than quantity.
“You are the salt of the land,” is another way of translating the words (“earth,” “land,” and “ground” all translate γῆ). The land of Israel was suffering under the weight of human conflict and injustice, and it still does. The land, the animate landscape, responds to whether we are salt, and whether our salt is tasteless. It responds positively to our prophetic presence, and cries out when true prophets are persecuted. We might say that being salt (and whether or not we are tasteless) has ecological significance.
In 5:15 Jesus says that a lantern (λύχνος) can shine for everyone in the house if it is not put under a bushel basket. It needs to be put on a lampstand (λυχνία). The house might remind us of the houses where Jesus’ followers gathered and still gather. “I earnestly desire that you all prophesy,” the apostle told those in the polis of Corinth. Our communities might also be the lampstands (see Revelation 1–3) within the larger house of creation (which the Temple symbolized), or the world. If we see it this way, verse 15 corresponds to verse 13.
The “world” (verse 14), then, might have a more expansive meaning than human society. Κόσμος, after all, can also refer to more than the human. We neatly distinguish nature and society, but ancient Israel did not. The natural environment and the people living in it were a single community of interrelations. Sometimes κόσμος means the world as experienced inside us and between us, that depends on what we believe, a mental construct that can even be hermetically disconnected like a bubble from our physical reality. A person’s “world” might be like this, and it might be shared by a great many others in huge information bubbles or economies or ideologies (and so on). This might not be what is meant here if we consider its immediate context. The world may be the complex of humans, animals, vegetation, and land in their relations with each other.
Nevertheless, on the perimeter of this passage, verses 11-12 and 16 we return to the relations of humans (οἱ ἄνθρωποι) with each other.
Let us, then, consider these verses. We notice that 5:11-12 and 5:16 stand in contrast to each other. In 11-12, those who prophesy are persecuted because the world is discomforted by them. The worlds “comfort zone” depends a great deal on not seeing what is there. White supremacism thrives on white people not recognizing it, for example, and often white people’s reaction is to kill the messengers who would remind people of their past or shed light on their present. Other examples abound. In verse 16, which refers back to verse 15 (οὕτως, “in the same way”), by the disciples letting their light shine – their heavenly light, the light bubbling up from deep inside them – others see their beautiful acts and bring glory to the One who dwells in the heavens. Either their words shed light on their acts so that others can see the acts in their true light, or the acts themselves shine with a holy light.
I am uncertain what it means when it says that humans (οἱ ἄνθρωποι) will glorify (or praise or honor or credit) your Father who is in the heavens unless it is the light at the beginning of the verse that first sheds light on the disciples’ relationship to this One whom Jesus calls “your Father who is in the heavens.” People in patriarchal societies would not immediately be impressed by the Divine (which they usually imagine as male) when they considered other people’s behavior because they are used to people being motivated by the desire to increase their wealth, influence, or power over others. The “light” has to introduce this into the darkness by opening the eyes that are spiritually blind. For this reason, I am inclined to think that “your light” (τὸ φῶς ὑμων) and “your beautiful deeds” (ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα) are distinct and the light illuminating the deeds reveal them for what they are ― beautiful. When people see the disciples’ behavior in this light, they can glorify the One who dwells in the heavens. If they refuse to see, they might be more inclined to insult and persecute them and say every wicked thing against them falsely.
This is the first time Jesus uses the word “Father” to refer to the One who dwells in the heavens. It is also used in 5:45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32; 7:11, 21; 10:20, 29, 32, 33; 11:25, 26, 27 (3x); 12:50; 13:43; 15:13; 16:17, 27; 18:10, 14, 19, 35; 20:23; 23:9; 24:36; 25:34; 26:29, 39, 42, 53; and 28:19. (I count 42 times.) Using this as a title for the Divine bothers me. There are patriarchal gods, strongman gods, bully gods, king gods, abusive father gods, rapist gods, warrior son gods, gods of power and might, almighty and omnipotent gods. Is the one whom Jesus calls “Father” one of these? I hope not. Perhaps the word “Father” is less gendered than it seems and means Parent without all the connotative meanings of a patriarchal male god. If you feminize it to Mother and use female pronouns, the connotation changes completely, but if you do this, the occurrences of the word in their context still make sense. However, not only did Jesus not use Mother but the connotation of the two words is felt and experienced in vastly different ways. I am at a loss. This figure does not seem to be the distance or abstract figure of עֶלְיוֹן, Elyon (supposedly the consort of Asherah), nor the king or warrior of many passages in the Hebrew scriptures.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus understands the Father to be the Divine, and to be “in the heavens” as his realm. That is, he dwells in the Holy of Holies with the angels whom he commands and who continually behold his face. This is the secret place where he is hidden. The Father also sees us in secret, knows our needs, receives and answers our prayers, cares for the birds and other wild creatures, cares for children and the marginalized, and cares for humans who put their trust in him. There is nothing gendered about either of these heavenly or earthly roles, for these discriptions of him do not distinguish him from the Motherly Presence of the Asherah or Lady of the Temple.
The penitents are also baptized in the Father’s name (which he shares with the Son and Holy Spirit); the Father’s spirit can speak through them; and he makes the righteous his “sons” (heirs?) who’ll shine like the sun in his realm. He expects his penitents to do his will, rewarding them and withholding rewards, and forgiving them and withholding forgiveness. Jesus might also confess or deny them before the Father. If the penitents are not forgiving, Jesus says the Father might “deliver them to torturers until they repay all that they owe,” though this is the metaphorical language of a parable. Likewise, the goddess in ancient semitic religions (Hathor, Ishtar, and Asherah, sometimes identified with each other) was sometimes given the title of Judge.
Jesus also says that the anointed Son will come with the Father’s “Glory” (the “Glory” sometimes is hypostasized and refers to the feminine presence of the Divine) and with the angels, though only the Father knows when; and it is the Father who will decide who gets to sit on the Son’s left and right hand when that day comes. In this case, there might be something impersonal about the Father: the Father is the one who knows. What is meant by the subject here might simply be the abstract divinity (what might be meant by עֶלְיוֹן, Elyon, the “Most High”).
Why Jesus chooses to call this One (אַחַת) the Father may have historic and cultural reasons, considering the time in which he lived, but I am not satisfied with the designation. “The one dwelling in the secret place of the divine shall abide under the shadow of Shaddai,” that is, under her wings or inside her mantle (Psalm 91:1). For me, the divine Presence is both personal and impersonal, and when personal, it is more feminine to me than masculine. She is the divine One who is infinitely present everywhere, whose face is everywhere in creation, who inhabits it all, and who, though one, is the animacy of it all. She is שְׁכִינָה, ἡ πανθεά omnium animabilium.
The beatitudes of being a penitent as a student of Jesus in 5:3-10, the call to the prophetic life of a penitent in 5:11-16, and the straitness of the way of a penitent in 5:17-20 form the introduction to the body of the sermon in 5:21–7:11, in which Jesus teaches his students about the inner life of the penitent.
At the end of the sermon Jesus returns to the beginning with a warning about the straitness of the way in 7:12-14, a warning that their prophetic voice can be false in 7:15-23, and a warning in 7:24-27 that their beatitude will be short-lived if their house is built on sand.
A …… 7:15
B ……….. 7:16a
C ……………. 7:16b
D ………………… 7:17a
E …………………….. 7:17b
E’ ……………………. 7:18a
D’ ……………….. 7:18b
C’ …………… 7:19
B’ ………. 7:20
A’ ….. 7:21-23
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
You will recognize them by their fruits.
Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
So, every healthy tree bears good fruit,
but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.
A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit,
nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Thus you will recognize then by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the realm of the heavens, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in the heavens. On that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? And then will I declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness. (Matthew 7:15-23)
This passage, and we would have to do it justice at another time, is about distinguishing true and false prophets. When I discussed 5:16, I distinguished between light and deeds, and said that the light revealed the deeds. Here the deeds reveal what kind of light we have. Our “light” may be false. Light and deeds go together. It’s not what a person says but what they do that reveals their substance. Like in the section that precedes this and that follows it, Jesus draws a sharp contrast. All three passages, 7:12-14, 15-23 and 24-27, are about the consequences of following or not following the teaching that is in the body of the sermon (5:21–7:11).